Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Riad Saleh Hussein: Tango Under a Narrow Ceiling

My heart is delicious to take a bite from.
It is an alcove for blue rabbits,
A shark with fins of stubborn cactus.
My heart is delicious to take a bite from
And slowly travels on your spiky marbles O earth—
O earth that spreads from certain death
On daggers’ blades
To certain and clearer death
By a rope draped from a dusty olive tree.
O earth stuffed with furrows
Covered with gravel and bullets
Dressed in a mackintosh of bridges between
Graves of the dead,
Between a legal white wound
And an unlawful black wound,
Between a beautiful silver cage
And a beautiful golden cage.
O earth shrouded with colorful photos of Tamerlane and Salome,
Show me your cold tongue so I can bite it with rage,
Show me your worn out lips,
So I can scatter over them my body’s ash.
It is possible
One day an atom will open
To sneak out a white flower
The way the first cell snuck out from nowhere
To release humans armed with blades,
Animals armed with fangs,
Mountains armed with volcanos,
A sky armed with lightning storms.
But I am only armed with a heart
Delicious to take a bite from.
Any woman is able to stretch out her hand to touch my chest
And remove handsomely my heart
The way it happened precisely:
There was a woman who put my heart
—my edible heart—
In a little cup,
Added some water and sugar.
I was about to ask her with bitterness:
Why did you drink up my heart, as if it were orange juice,
Rather than eat it as an orange?
But more likely
She was dancing a tango
Under a narrow ceiling.

—translated from the Arabic by Saleh Razzouk & Philip Terman


Translation copyright 2018 Saleh Razzouk & Philip Terman.

First published in Bitter Oleander. Included in Vox Populi by permission of the translators.

Bio of the poet:

Born in 1954 in Der’a, Syria, Riad Saleh Hussein lost his hearing at the age of 13 because of a medical error. Although he had very little formal schooling, he showed a talent for poetry at a young age. During his lifetime, three collections of poetry were published: Failure of Circulation, 1979; Daily Legends, 1980; and Simple Like Water, Clear Like a Bullet, 1982. The latter was published only five months prior to his death in 1982 at the age of 28.

His fourth collection of poetry, A Bull in a Jungle, was published one year later. The collection ends with a poem titled “Habit,” with a final line that reads, “I have grown accustomed to awaiting you, O Revolution.”

What a strange coincidence that Riyad al-Saleh al-Hussein bid the world adieu with a “Revolution.” Twenty-nine years later, a Syrian Revolution reenthroned al-Hussein as an icon of the new wave of poetry, taking his poem “Syria” as its anthem:

O cruel Syria
like a scalpel in a surgeon’s hand
we are your good children
we had your bread, your olives, your scourges


[bio adapted from Ibtihal Mahmood writing for Arabic Literature in English


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